Last week, Mr Bertrand Bisimwa, the political head and supposed Commander-in-Chief of the M23 Movement, declared the end of the armed rebellion. The rebel group has caused tension in the region and Sunday Monitor’s Timothy Kalyegira explores what the defeat could signal for two Eastern Africa countries.
Last week, in a dramatic turn of events, the Congolese rebel group known as the March 23 (M23), announced it was abandoning its armed insurrection in the eastern part of the country.
The Congolese army, backed by a United Nations brigade made up of Tanzanian, South African and Malawian soldiers defeated the M23 after a week of heavy fighting that involved battle tanks and helicopter support.
M23 rebels who fled into the cover of the forests were pursued there, located and destroyed. Many shocked M23 guerrillas fled into neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda.
The M23 were the offshoot of another Banyamulenge fighting group called the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) headed by a renegade Congolese army general, Lt Gen Laurent Nkunda Batware.
The CNDP had been formed after a rebellion by Tutsi in the Congolese army who complained about unpaid wages and discrimination and who made their intentions known to create an enclave or even a breakaway republic in eastern Congo, their home area.
On January 22, 2009 after Gen Nkunda was invited to a meeting to coordinate a combined military operation between Rwanda and Congo, he was arrested, placed under house arrest in the Rwandan town of Gisenyi, but reports say he now lives quietly in a tightly-guarded house in Kigali.
Nkunda’s arrest saw the gradual dissolution of the CNDP but to fill the gap and lead the aspirations of Congo’s Tutsi minority, the M23 (most of its fighters formerly in the CNDP) was formed.
Background to Tutsi militancy in the Great Lakes region, 1989 to 2013
The rise of armed Tutsi groups in eastern Congo was a natural outgrowth of the formation of a Tutsi-dominated political group in Uganda in 1989 called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).
The RPF, made up mainly of exiled Tutsi in Uganda, but also from Burundi, South Africa, Tanzania and Congo, itself arose from the desire to return home that followed the 1959 Hutu rebellion that sent more than 150,000 Tutsi into exile in neighbouring countries, the majority of them in Uganda.
The Tutsi had traditionally, during pre-colonial times, been the ruling aristocracy in the same way the Nilo-Hamitic Bahima of Ankole and the Babiito of Bunyoro and Tooro in Uganda were.
The loss of their dignity and home and the humiliating years as refugees in camps in Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi and status of servitude that followed was a deeply traumatic experience for the Tutsi.
Taking advantage of the various Ugandan governments’ open policy, the Tutsi organised, integrated into Uganda’s school system, civil service, army and most of all, the intelligence services, the State Research Bureau in the 1970s.
Following the overthrow of President Milton Obote and the formation of a guerrilla group called the Front for National Salvation (FRONASA), led by a former intelligence officer called Yoweri Museveni, a number of these Tutsi joined Museveni while the majority served either in Idi Amin’s army or intelligence.
After the 1979 Tanzania-Uganda war, Museveni recruited many Tutsi youth into Fronasa in Mbarara and they joined the UNLA national army.
Following the disputed 1980 general election and the launch of his guerrilla war in Luweero in central Uganda, Tutsi soldiers and students, among them Fred Rwigyema, Adam Wasswa, Paul Kagame, Kayumba Nyamwasa, Patrick Karegyeya, James Kabarebe and others either foght in Luweero in Museveni’s NRA or served in military and intelligence capacities after Museveni captured state power in 1986.
Museveni became the most important rallying point and inspirational figure for the exiled Tutsi. His five-year guerrilla war and eventual victory against a sitting government gave the Tutsi a glimpse into the realm of what was possible: a rag-tag army could be created and slowly fight a protracted Maoist guerrilla war and one day topple a government.
It gave the Tutsi soldiers something to think about. If it could be done in Uganda, why couldn’t it be done in Rwanda?
Soon after the NRA came to power in Uganda, the Tutsi in Uganda wasted no time in secretly plotting a similar guerrilla war in Rwanda.
An original RPF formed in Kampala in 1986 that claims a latter RPF led by Rwigyema and Kagame usurped them, harassed them and became the face of Tutsi organization in 1989.
In late 1989, RPF reconnaissance agents began secretly visiting Rwanda, taking photographs of villages, drawing up lists of prominent village voices and leaders and assessing the geography of the area.
In October 1990, a year later, a large-scale invasion with the backing of Uganda, complete with arms, gunboots from the Bata shoe store in Kampala and a rear field hospital set up in Mbarara Town to receive and treat casualties, got underway.
Less than four years later, Kigali had been captured by the RPF and exile ended with the return of the Tutsi home --- but also in the wake of a genocide that a study by Canadian and British researchers has estimated at 250,000 dead, not the one million or 800,000 figure that has become the internationally accepted toll.
The swift victory achieved by Museveni in Uganda and the RPF in almost equal time in Rwanda was a moment of great pride for Tutsi everywhere.
From the shame and helplessness of exile, they now started to believe in themselves again.
In neighbouring Congo, the Tutsi minority, some of whom had fought alongside the RPF between 1990 and 1994, felt a stir of ethnic pride too. If it could be done in Uganda, and Rwanda, well, why not also in Zaïre?
At the height of their power in the mid 1990s, they were a spectacular fighting machine. The view was that the disciplined RPF had moved in where the international community had failed and halted a genocide that could have been much worse than it was.
Kagame and war
Under the pretext that the Banyamulenge were being mistreated in Zaïre, a Banyamulenge force armed and financed by Rwanda and Uganda became the core of an anti-government coalition that started its military campaign in October 1996 and ousted the long-standing leader, Mobutu Sese Seko after only seven months of fighting, in May 1997.
This was the third time in 16 years that Paul Kagame, the military leader of the RPF, had fought in a war that each time resulted in victory for his side --- Uganda, 1981-1986, Rwanda, 1990-1994 and amazingly now, Zaïre, 1996-1997.
Even the Tutsi must have wondered at their spectacular successes. It seemed as if the mythical Chwezi Tutsi-Hima-Babiito prophetess Nyabingi was blessing their campaigns.
The English-speaking West – plagued by guilt over its failure to stop the 1994 Rwandan genocide and impressed by the image of military success by the Tutsi-led armies – turned a blind eye to them, viewing them as a de facto peacekeeping force in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa with the added advantage of knowing local history and conditions.
A winning formula had been created. Museveni and Kagame working jointly would sponsor a military group that needed sponsoring. Then with their accumulated guerrilla experience, mobile brigades moving swiftly would overrun villages and towns in the enemy territory, defeating government troops.
In the meantime, a vigorous international public relations campaign against the enemy government would be simultaneously launched, with the enemy government being portrayed as having an indisciplined army that harassed, raped and killed innocent civilians.
The Western media, academia and human rights groups would duly condemn this enemy government, making it all the easier for the advancing mobile brigades on the battle front.
Hubris, and confidence that they could do no wrong, set in. Rwanda became a cliché for everything right, efficient and progressive about an African country.
Everything it did was quoted and awarded with citations in the English-speaking West. It had the highest number of women parliamentarians in the world. It was one of the best two places in Africa for foreign investors to set up business.
It had a one-laptop-per-child policy. Its streets were cleaner than any in Africa. While other African countries struggled, Rwanda had met its United Nations Millennium Development goals well ahead of time. Everything about Rwanda was the leading or the best in Africa.
President Kagame was the inspiring figure behind this rise of the tiny central African country. Awards, honorary degrees, speaking engagements in the West followed.
A number of Ugandan journalists joined this Western echo chamber in praise of Rwanda’s achievements. Rwanda could do no wrong and they sometimes gave the impression that their first allegiance was to Rwanda, not Uganda.
The high water mark, though, for this Tutsi revival of power and prestige in the Great Lakes region came in August 1998 when Kampala and Kigali once again attempted to move swiftly onto Kinshasa, this time to overthrow their former ally President Laurent Kabila.
This time, alarmed at the amount of political disruption that Kampala and Kigali were causing in the region, Angolan troops moved in and blocked the rapidly advancing Rwandan army.
For the first time since 1984, the Kagame forces faced a much more battle-hardened and much better equipped army, the Angolan army. What resulted was what international commentators termed “Africa’s World War”.
Battle-tested armies from Rwanda and Uganda taking on battle-hardened armies from Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia, all fighting for the soul of Congo and trying to settle the question of how long the Tutsi would be allowed to strike at will in the region.
The 1998-2002 war in Congo gradually ended in the withdraw of all parties, but the Banyamulenge dream of military glory never left.
Only last year, the M23 – made up mainly of ethnic Tutsi Congolese known regionally as Banyamulenge – had gained the military upper hand.
They marched upon town after town in eastern Congo, met by passive residents, an equally passive UN peacekeeping force and fleeting Congolese soldiers and policemen.
At rallies in the captured towns, the M23’s military commander, Col Sultani Makenga, confidently declared that the possibility of driving on to capture the capital Kinshasa could not be ruled out. For a few weeks, the Great Lakes region saw afresh the past military prowess of the Tutsi of the 1980s and 1990s in Luweero, Rwanda and Congo.
International calls calling on Rwanda and Uganda to stop supporting the M23 were denied by the two countries and ignored by the rebels.
But 2013 is a changed world. The Western guilt over the Rwandan genocide was fading after 19 years. The Bill Clinton-Tony Blair era that emphasised human rights was being replaced by the urgency of economic competition for resources between the West and a rising China.
Congo, home to some of the world’s most valuable and abundant mineral resources, could not remain off-limits to the world market just because of some troublesome tribal rebels in eastern Congo.
And so, in a repeat of 1998, southern Africa’s SADC (South Africa, Tanzania, Malawi) intervened to halt the ambitions of Rwanda-Uganda military machinery in eastern Africa, finally crushing the M23 rebels, and for the time being, it appears to mark the end of a remarkable 25-year history of military adventure by the Museveni and Kagame forces.